The older I get, the harder I find it to take the NL East seriously. Besides the Facebook trolls playing Baseball Tycoon on the lowest difficulty setting down in Miami, the East features a division champion returning two starters who hit below the Mendoza line, a franchise that appears seriously committed to treating Queens like it's a smaller market than Kansas City, a franchise for whom "all of them" is a legitimate answer to the question of who to target in free agency and a team that even in 2013 still claims "Natitude" is a word.
That doesn't mean nothing's happening in the NL East, of course. On the contrary, there's all sorts of schemes flying about. The Braves want to trade Dan Uggla, the Nationals are considering dumping Denard Span, and it's that time of year again when Giancarlo Stanton wonders how long it would take the Marlins to notice if he paid Mike Stanton to take his place and just ran. The NL East imitates its own geography: it's crowded, old and stupid, and if you head straight to the bottom you'll end up in Miami.
Needs: 2B, CF, SP
The Braves don't have very many needs as a team, but the ones they do have are stark, and they're not the kind of needs that can be filled just by signing someone. Rather, they're the kind of needs that were caused by signing someone. Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton made a combined $26 million in 2013 to hit under .200 for the season and, in Uggla's case, get left off the postseason roster in favor of the likes of Elliot Johnson, who had been waived by Kansas City in August.
It's difficult to quantify how much these two albatrosses actually hurt the Braves in the regular season considering the team led the division with 96 wins, because Atlanta was certainly helped by an overhyped Nationals franchise that couldn't get anything going until the last month of the season and a trio of comically inept teams following behind them. That's not something the Braves can count on continuing in 2014 (though it very well may continue regardless). Moving both contracts in a single offseason would be quite ambitious, especially considering that B.J. Upton not only signed his long-term deal in Atlanta last year, but his brother is the team's long-term plan in left field. Uggla has had multiple years to show he was worth the money Atlanta gave him in the 2010-2011 offseason and the results simply haven't materialized, so the Braves will actively be looking for someone to take him off their hands.
By all rights they shouldn't find a taker, but the ridiculous mobility of the Vernon Wells megadeal -- sent first from Toronto to the Angels, then on to the Yankees -- has put the lie to the concept of an untradeably bad contract. Uggla, 34 in March, is still due $13 million next year and $13 million the year after that. If the Braves were to eat some of the 2014 salary and most of the 2015 salary, in theory they might find some suitors in the American League who could move him into a part-time DH role. The problem, of course, is that Uggla is not a very compelling player to acquire from just about any perspective. He has never been a complete second baseman, he has never been an elite offensive talent, and he's a second baseman nearing his mid-thirties who was a worse than replacement-level producer in 2013.
There's not a single team whose second base situation is so poor that they'll acquire a negative-value player to fill the hole and pay millions of dollars and some amount of talent for the privilege. It's possible this might be a situation where the Braves would actually have to a legitimate prospect with Uggla to the team in question (let's say the Toronto Blue Jays, who have a 2B hole and would be looking for Uggla to build value so they in turn could flip him) in order to get them to bite instead of getting a prospect coming the other way; the "return" on an Uggla trade would be space in the payroll.
Outside of those two crises, however, the Braves are pretty much set. The team is getting a moderate payroll boost next year to account for the various arbitration raises, and given the expiring contracts of Paul Maholm and Tim Hudson along with the likelihood that catcher Brian McCann will turn down a qualifying offer and sign elsewhere, the Braves may have some financial room to play with.
The Braves would like Hudson to return, likely for less than the $9 million that he was paid this season, and Maholm is completely replaceable. While a rotation of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Alex Wood and Hudson with a (hopefully healthy) Brandon Beachy waiting in the wings might not have the pure ace power that the Nationals, Phillies, Marlins and Mets (when Harvey's healthy) can flash, it was arguably the best rotation in terms of results in the National League last year and doesn't have the weaknesses on the back end from which the rest of the rotations in the division suffer. If Freeman also develops a bit more power and Uggla or B.J. Upton rebound in any significant fashion, the Braves could once again be the team to beat not only in the East, but the entire National League.
Needs: 1B, CF, SP
The Nationals had a bizarre season characterized by a number of great individual performances that added up to a whole that was far less than the sum of its parts. There are teams where 86 wins is a milestone, but the Washington Nationals in 2013 were not one of those teams. Washington was expected to not only win the East, but contend for the city's first title in almost a century. Instead, the Nationals missed the playoffs.
After injuries and bad luck, the list of scapegoats is rather thin. Pitcher Dan Haren will most likely depart in the offseason, with Nationals fans wondering what could have been had he been in top form from Opening Day. Other than Haren, the Nationals don't have any regulars who are strictly gone with the end of the 2013 season, but with the changing of the guard at the field manager level -- Davey Johnson has retired, replaced by Arizona coach Matt Williams -- the Washington front office might make some moves to create places for free agents to sign.
The two most notably lagging places on the field in terms of offensive production in 2013 were first base and center field. Adam LaRoche was a serviceably league-average hitter at a position that demands better than league-average production at the plate (something just about everyone saw coming when the Nationals brought LaRoche back). Denard Span had a poor first half of the season in center but turned it on in the second half (relatively speaking) to end the year with a .707 OPS. In a vacuum, Span's job shouldn't be in danger -- he can play center well enough and a healthy 2014 Nationals lineup has six other hitters in it coming off 2013 seasons at the plate ranging from very good to elite.
However, the Nationals are going to be looking to make upgrades somewhere on their roster to create the perception that they're fixing whatever was wrong with last season's team. Considering that they're fine with spending money and that Curtis Granderson is looking like he might not receive a qualifying offer after all, center field is a far more palatable place to make a change than first base is this offseason, unless the idea of Justin Smoak appeals to general manager Mike Rizzo.
If the Nationals sign Granderson (or even Jacoby Ellsbury; Washington is no stranger to sacrificing first round picks at the altar of talent), they would then likely try to flip Span to one of the also-rans in the center field market for either bullpen pieces or just the best prospects they can get their hands on. The guy the Nationals traded to acquire Span, Alex Meyer, is currently the best pitcher in the Twins system, so good returns aren't unprecedented, perhaps just a bit unlikely. After all, Washington's cavalier attitude towards draft picks and the farm system is far from the norm in the era of the qualifying offer. If the Nats can stay healthy, though, it won't matter too much if it's Span, Granderson, Ellsbury or Franklin Gutierrez in center field. A healthy, firing Nationals roster is good enough to give the Braves a run for the division.
New York Mets
Needs: 1B, SS, RF, RP
The Mets won the battle in 2013, but will have to postpone the war. With Matt Harvey sidelined by Tommy John surgery that will likely sideline him for the entire 2014 season, any theoretical window for the Mets to sneak into the wild card race will have to be deferred until 2015 (which was when that window was optimistically supposed to open anyway). The Mets' offseason is already shaping up to be strange, because for a middle-of-the-pack team with some very strong, promising aspects and a lot more question marks, the franchise in Flushing sure does aggregate unnecessary drama.
Ruben Tejada was the franchise's theoretical shortstop to follow Jose Reyes, but he's lost just about any scrap of favor he had with the organization and the Mets' shortstop prospects are all too young to make an impact on the 2014 squad. The team's relationship with Tejada went from cautious to acrimonious to openly hostile to nonexistent. The Mets were so committed to keeping Tejada out of sight and out of mind in the minors that they gave Omar Quintanilla 359 PA of .589 OPS baseball, and have made certain to refer to Justin Turner as the team's utility infielder moving forward.
Ever since the season ended, there's been a constant undercurrent of talk that the Mets are discussing a Troy Tulowitzki trade with the Colorado Rockies, but that'd be a completely bonkers move on the Rockies' part for all the reasons it seems like it would be: Tulo is the face of the Colorado franchise, one of the most valuable players in baseball, and the idea that Mets ownership would be willing to just add $20 million a year in contract expenses to their budget stretches credulity. There's likely no money in the budget to sign Jhonny Peralta, so either the hatchet gets buried and Tejada gets the shortstop job back, or the Mets deal Tejada and try to make do with Quintanilla, Turner, and whoever they can scrounge up from the free agent dregs (one thing's for sure: Brendan Ryan should find work somewhere). Either way it's an ugly situation, and the Mets are likely looking forward to not ever having to talk about it again one way or another. The best possible outcome here is the Mets deal Tejada for some reasonably relevant talent and shortstop prospect Gavin Cecchini continues to develop well in the minors.
According to the Mets, the majority of the players they need for 2014 are already on the roster, and the only important question left is how to deploy them. For instance, the Mets seem to think they actually have too many first basemen on the roster, making one of Lucas Duda and Ike Davis expendable. Considering that once guys like Kendrys Morales and Mike Napoli are removed from the market, the best first basemen available are James Loney and Corey Hart, that would seem to give the Mets some leverage to trade one of the two.
Then you actually look at what Duda and Davis did in 2013. Duda put up a .767 OPS but was a statue when he played the field, while Davis was able to field his position but only had a .661 OPS while doing so. Duda would seem to be the more valuable trade asset considering he hit better and an AL team could give him DH time, but Duda also struck out 102 times in 384 plate appearances and hit in the .230s -- he's a rather swingy feast-or-famine type hitter, and if a team is really looking for one of those at first base, Mark Reynolds is looking for work and requires no compensation beyond a one-year deal. Davis still has the better long-term upside -- but barely -- and if he returns the better haul, he'll likely be the guy they part with.
The Mets have said they're listening on second baseman Daniel Murphy, but it's yet to be seen who precisely is asking. Defensively, Murphy doesn't handle the position well at all. Offensively he's better than average, but not so good that teams should be giving up assets to get him from New York unless all other options, including guys like Ryan Roberts, are exhausted. If the Mets do deal Murphy somewhere, Eric Young, Jr., would be his likely replacement, meaning a hole would open in left field.
New York is shedding a vast amount of payroll this offseason, but Mets ownership is mostly expected to eat the money. Even if they weren't, neither Curtis Granderson nor Jacoby Ellsbury are realistic options for New York regardless of the fact that their first round pick is protected. The Mets are going to give Juan Lagares, who got rave reviews as a part-time contributor in center last season, a very long look in 2014 to see what they have in center going into a season where they might actually contend. If Lagares had played a full season in center he might have walked away with an NL Gold Glove; as it was, defensive metrics ranked his 2013 half-season as merely one of the sixty best defensive seasons in the history of the sport.
Of course, no matter how their ownership tries to sell it, the idea of a New York baseball franchise slashing payroll from $95 million is ludicrous. A team in the New York media market should be able to field a $100 million payroll in its sleep. The Yankees, of course, are agonizing about getting down to a number that's almost $100 million greater than the starting point for the Mets' budget cuts. Mostly this just means that the Mets won't pursue free agents of any merit, because they would likely need to overpay to attract any of the top-tier players in the first place considering their conduct over the past few years. More importantly, the budget crunch informs what the Mets will do about shortstop.
The departure of Marlon Byrd leaves right field the last and most concretely vacant position on the Mets' roster. No one can slide over from any other position on the field to adequately fill it, and the team has no slam dunk minor league options to slot in. There has been talk out of the Mets front office about going hard after Shin-Soo Choo, which is something that shouldn't considered anything more than talk unless something actually happens on that front. Carlos Beltran would probably be the preferred fan choice, but Beltran likely wants a shot at a ring the Mets can't give him. If Duda moves to first (or is traded) and payroll is slashed, then it would likely fall to internal options to pick up the slack. The Mets' best right field prospect is Cesar Puello, who had a great year at Double A before getting nailed in the Biogenesis scandal; it's unlikely New York will bring him straight to the majors in 2014, if only for service time reasons. Which leaves... not a lot of options. Well, Andrew Brown has get at-bats somewhere, right? If the Mets do significantly cut payroll, this will be the position on the field that likely suffers most.
Everything about 2014 for the Mets is gearing up to be a wasted season, but there's still ways for the players to improve. If Zack Wheeler can figure out how to get through the lineup three times at the major league level and Jenrry Mejia can come back from his bone spurs with the same effectiveness he showed at the end of the 2013 season, New York could find themselves with quite a pitching staff on their hands when Harvey makes his way back from surgery. But that does little to help New York for the short term.
Needs: C, 1B, 3B, CF, RF, SP
First base is listed here because that's how bad the Ryan Howard situation has become. Even though there are another four years and $85 million (including the $10 million 2017 buyout) left on his contract, it's reasonable for the Phillies to start looking at least for a platoon partner for Howard. We're not going to spend much time on him because that subject's been beaten to death, and the easy platoon fix is to sign Jeff Baker or Gaby Sanchez if he's non-tendered by the Pirates.
Another thing to get out of the way: the Philadelphia Phillies are not getting Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins. No matter how much the Phillies or prospect people who listen to the Phillies talk up Jesse Biddle, Maikel Franco and Carlos Tocci, all three of those guys plus any other Phillies prospect in the system doesn't come close to what ten other teams can and will put on the table as a package to get Stanton. It's getting a bit embarrassing that this keeps coming up from the national reporters, because that means that Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro keeps asking.
Going into the offseason, the question surrounding the Phillies should have been, "Will they keep trying to contend or will they blow up the roster, go through a limited fire sale and get some talent back on the farm?" That question was answered pretty early on. The Phillies will try to re-sign free agent catcher Carlos Ruiz and have already been connected to literally every single big name outfield free agent -- Nelson Cruz, Curtis Granderson, Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury -- as if they were all created equal and the important part was just getting one of the four under contract.
In absolute fairness, the Phillies do have a protected first round pick and the only locked-down outfield position at the moment is Domonic Brown in left, meaning that all of the named outfielders fit some sort of Philadelphia need (except for Cruz, who is less and less of believable right fielder with each passing season and who will cost far too much to pry away from Texas anyhow). Granderson, Choo and Ellsbury all fit different needs and different plans, and if the only plan being put in place is to sign the top free agents, soldier up and march ever onwards to October, the Phillies are going to hit the same wall they hit this year. They're an aging team that gets hurt a lot, has near zero depth at a number of positions and makes poor spending decisions when presented with the opportunity.
After a year spent watching Michael Young stumble around the hot corner before a late-season trade, young Cody Asche will be the starting third baseman for the Phillies with Franco waiting in the wings. Asche's first stint with the big league team was pedestrian at best, but a full season of work -- or at least more than the 179 PA he got last year -- should provide a fuller accounting of what the Phillies have in him. He's not likely going to end up an everyday player in the long run, but the perfect world scenario is that Asche plays well enough to be a guy that some team will give up major value for while Franco plays well enough that he's chomping at the bit to come up the second Asche is moved. The most likely scenario is that Asche is unremarkable, below-average at the plate but steady in the field, Franco hits well enough to justify a promotion but is blocked, and new manager Ryne Sandberg and Ruben Amaro have a choice to make. That's not the end of the world either.
The Phillies center and right field choices will depend heavily on how Ellsbury, Granderson and Choo react to their offers. If Amaro wants to make a splash -- and there are few things that he enjoys doing more than making a splash, it seems -- one of those three will at least have an offer on the table from Philadelphia shortly after the exclusive negotiating window expires, if not all three. Granderson is probably the best choice, if this is a road the Phillies have to walk down. Granderson's in his early 30s, it's possible he might not rate a qualifying offer and his ability to play center at least leaves open the remote possibility of Franco and Asche playing so well that the Phillies try to see how well one of them handles right field.
In the rotation, the Phillies have the familiar Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick in the first three spots, with a Jonathan Pettibone/Ethan Martin tandem following. One of those guys will likely get replaced by Jesse Biddle at some point in the year, for better or for worse, but considering the amount of money already pumped into the team, if Philadelphia is really serious about pursuing one of the big outfielders it would likely leave them relying on that mish-mash for a fifth starter. Signing big-name starters in free agency has never really been Amaro's style anyway, with the exception of Lee, who was a bit of a special case considering his previous history with the club.
In the end I don't have much faith in Asche, Franco, Biddle, Brown or anyone else on the roster to get the Phillies much higher than third place. The state of the farm has left Amaro more or less unable to leverage his greatest skill -- negotiating player trades -- without wrecking what little depth he still has available to him, and Biddle and Franco both have major concerns as prospects. (Biddle's curve is great, but strangely no one ever seems to catch him on the days when he's sitting 95-96 mph on his fastball instead of in the low 90s, and Franco's swing still has a very prominent arm-bar to it.) If Amaro's able to turn the both of them into a high-quality MLB player, more power to him. If he spends a lot more of ownership's money and ends up behind the Mets again, it's probably time for the Phillies to make some hard decisions about the future of their front office.
Needs: 1B, 3B, SP, RP
The good news for Miami fans is that Jose Fernandez is the real deal, and Christian Yelich in left, Jake Marisnick in center and Giancarlo Stanton in right (with special guest appearances by Marcell Ozuna) could be an extremely awesome outfield in 2014. The bad news is that it's still not clear why the Marlins thought it necessary to burn through service time on their four best prospects in a lost 2013 season, especially on the outfielders, and Stanton's progression into arbitration most likely means that after this season Ozuna will be the everyday RF and the Marlins slugger will have been shipped off to more welcoming climes.
The Marlins have not changed, not really. They're good at what they do, but what they do is a very narrow-visioned, mercenary version of the sport of baseball. For instance, last year the Marlins brought Fernandez up before most people thought it was likely he'd see substantial playing time in the majors (though not before he was ready). Instead of pitching through a lost 2013 at the major league level, Fernandez could easily have been brought up a month into the 2014 season to join a reconstituted Marlins roster, making the best use of the limited service time he'll have before Miami is "forced" to trade him away.
However, when Miami trades him away in 2016, they'll be able to argue for a return on a 23-year-old ace who has been at the top of his rotation since he was 20 years old, instead of a 24-year-old ace in 2017, which is when he'd hit arbitration were the Marlins to have licked their wounds for a year, revamped the roster and then called Fernandez up.
So arrive early for the shirtsey giveaways while you can, Miami fans, and have fun watching the kids play alongside Jeff Mathis and whichever veteran infielders couldn't find a major league deal anywhere else. (But hey, at least they brought back Greg Dobbs!) Hopefully they can make the Marlins a fun team despite its worst intentions; Lord knows you deserve at least that.